The Stone Fields by Courtney Angela Brkic
Courtney Angela Brkic’s short story collection Stillness was published to much acclaim in 2003, named both a Notable Book by The New York Times and a Best Book by the Chicago Tribune. Brkic’s stories of the Balkan War and its aftereffects were rooted in her experiences there as a forensic archaeologist in 1996. She wrote her stories concurrently with a memoir that has just been published to coincide with the paperback publication of the story collection. The Stone Fields is Brkic’s story, both her personal account of digging in the Srebrenica killing fields and her family’s historic Yugoslavian story. Ultimately I think both books will stand the test of time as valuable records of war and its impact on civilian populations. Personally, though, I think The Stone Fields is the more important book, as it provides not only a modern perspective on the pain of Yugoslavia but also testifies to all the horrors which the twentieth century has visited upon that desperate piece of Earth. Brkic’s experiences are significant and fascinating, but it was the episodes of the book told from her grandmother’s point of view that truly blew me away.
From the very beginning we meet Angela Brkic, an archaeologist drawn to Bosnia strictly for familial reasons. She has no experience in forensics but she speaks Serbian, a valuable ability to human rights groups working in the region. In 1995 she worked in Croatia, recording the testimony of victims in the refugee camps. While this was meaningful and important work, she still felt compelled to return to the place she knew best, to the area where her father had grown up. So in 1996 she joined a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team and began what would ultimately be a life altering stint at unearthing the massacred dead in Srebrenica.
While Brkic’s recollection of her experiences with colleagues in Tuzla and Srebrenica (specifically Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled area where the graves were located) are interesting, my attention started to wander soon after starting the book. I have read this before, in different ways, by journalists and photographers who worked in the same area. Eric Stover and Gilles Peress’s book The Graves, about both Srebrenica and Vukovar, is probably one of the most powerful books ever written on the United Nations debacle which resulted in the two massacres. Peress’s photos make this a difficult book to match, let alone beat. But Brkic has a surprise in store for her readers 40 pages into the book. She has already explained that her family is from Herzegovina and her father grew up in Sarajevo, which explains her longing for the country and knowledge of its customs and language. But I never expected her to suddenly change voice and speak as her grandmother, recounting one of the more tragic and touching family histories I have ever read. Angela Brkic is a gifted writer, but the life of Andelka Jukic is utterly riveting. By allowing her grandmother’s story to be told Brkic has done a truly wonderful thing; she has given us the lives of millions of ordinary people who only wanted to live and love. Andelka never had the luxury of a quiet easy life and it breaks your heart to read how much she deserved it.
As she recounts her family’s history, Brkic details the greater history of the Balkan region. The geographic names will be familiar to readers who have kept up with current events but the cultures and traditions of the people who lived there are largely unknown to Westerners. One of Brkic’s frustrations while working for Physicians for Human Rights is how little her co-workers seem to understand the multitude of ethnic divides. When Serbian workers are hired to dig up the graves in Srebrenica she cannot stand what she sees as an act of desecration. These very men could have been involved in the massacre, but her employers think she is exaggerating her case. As Brkic makes clear though, the Westerners do not know what it is like over there. This raises the question of who is Angela Brkic, an American working in a Serbian controlled “entity” or a Herzegovina refugee who grew up in Sarajevo. Is she more the product of her own experiences or those of her father, and by extension, her grandmother, a woman she never met. In essence this book poses the question of, “What is a refugee?” Once you emigrate, do you lose that status, do you lose your former country, or do you just give it to your children without even realizing what you have done? Brkic went back to the former Yugoslavia because she was looking for something, something perhaps that her father had left behind.
When I finished The Stone Fields I was surprised by how much of it I found to be both deeply moving and disturbing. It is just such a sad book, an overwhelmingly sad book. The thing is, Brkic is not trying to tug at our heartstrings, and she is not looking for our pity or our tears. She is just telling the story of her family, of the place they loved, or what happened to the people who lived there. She is just telling the most simple and mundane of truths. And maybe that is why it is so upsetting. The truth is we just keep hurting each other and nobody ever gets better, not the people, not the place, not the world. We just keep hurting each other.
The Stone Fields by Courtney Angela Brkic
Farrar, Straus and Giroux